Monday, 13 February 2012

We'd control it if we could

The thistle season is upon us and the annual thistle vendetta has been underway for some time. Several methods have been employed as we have worked to rid our small holding of these prickly affronts to good land management. Initially I attacked the slender thistles with the brushcutter, strewing mashed green foliage in a wide swathe of destruction that was very satisfying when the thistles were massed together underneath the blackwood trees. Chasing down the more patchy clumps over a wider area was tedious but the results of a thistle free paddock were worth it.

Steep slopes and rocky outcrops proved a little more difficult to work on and achieve effective control but perseverance and a keen sense of balance pushed the thistles back each year. Overalls were typically stained green and were impregnated with vengeful spines by the end of the season and I have long since abandoned the idea of washing out these residues but instead allow the vegetable matter to dry and then give the garments a good shake. Donning them once again and feeling the itchy prickle of previous battles is a bit like donning a hair shirt as a reminder that the conflict with sin is never over. In fact there are probably many metaphorical comparisons one could make between the control of noxious weeds and the journey of life but I think that on the whole of it the physical prickles are probably easier to control than the mental ones.

Once the mass thistle cull had been accomplished for the first time and we could see the contours of the land and the potential hazards on its surface, we were able to continue control in many areas simply by mowing over the emerging weeds, gradually teaching them the futility of their misguided persistence in trying to re-establish a presence in what essentially was ceded territory. On steep slopes and rocky outcrops however, the story was different. These weeds were like the guerrilla fighters, carrying on a dogged resistance in the hope of one day rallying and reclaiming the land that was once theirs. These stalwarts were not without their allies; for on the other side of the fence where the neighbour's attitude to thistles is far more tolerant, vast armies were gathering as the weeds bred indiscriminately and waited for a fair breeze to send their downy seeds skyward to land like the sleepers of espionage novels, in our paddocks, until the conditions for their uprising were favourable.

Often these guerrilla weeds would manage to go undetected long enough to produce seed and their tough, thorny stalks would wave these into the air in defiance of our version of pastoral purity laws. We found the best way to deal with those in the more difficult areas was to pull them by hand. This isn't difficult with slender thistles as their spiny defences are easily circumvented with a pair of gardening gloves but the scotch thistle can be quite a challenge and prove hardy fighters in the face of annihilation. It can be fairly punishing work, following the thistle trail, pulling them by their roots and teaching them that their kind is unwelcome on our neck of the woods. It's a bit like ethnic cleansing when you think of it and we continually reinforce our prejudices with every weed we pull, hawthorn that we poison and elder that we hack. So far we have used organic methods on the thistles and the least invasive techniques to discourage the hawthorn that in their way are far nastier than their weedy counterparts but there may come a time when bending the back to pull the weeds is less appealing than spraying some toxic substance.

Generally through summer, a walk around the property will involve carrying a hoe and chipping away at any offencive weed that pokes its head high enough to reveal its position. We are a property at war and it pays to be ever vigilant. It is a pity that the same techniques cannot be applied to the control of marauding possums and wallabies that are keen to eat just about anything that isn't a weed.

What has all this to do with goats? Well it is a long held belief of mine, perhaps based on erroneous anecdotal and possibly apocryphal information, that goats eat thistles and it was with this information in mind that I assumed that our thistle problems in at least one area of the pastures would be no more. Alas, this does not seem to be the case as thistle after thistle went ignored by the girls. They weren't interested even if you pulled the thistle and tried to feed it to them. They looked with disdain at this spiky offering and bleated their displeasure in no uncertain terms as they demanded more palatable fare and so I have been reduced to hunting the thistles down in the customary manner, pulling them from the earth and leaving them to wilt under the heat of the sun. Recent observations however, suggest that my previous assumptions may be based on more than myth and perhaps a goat needs to attain some maturity before it will include thistles in its diet. Slender thistles that escaped my previous attentions are now appearing to be flower less and being proffered a bountifully flowering scotch thistle recently, the girls showed interest in plucking off the flower buds and enjoying their delicate novelty.

It is quite amusing to watch an animal attempt to eat a thistle. Obviously they are not immune to spines and have no greater love for being prickled than do I but by careful placing of the lips and manoeuvring to the back teeth, one can crunch through the stem and claim the prize. The question is; can you rely on the goats to eat the thistles when there is so much other good food available or do you remove a potential delicacy for future consumption through a paranoia that if you don't take responsibility for the cleansing of this scourge then it will once again get out of hand? And then there is of course the ever present fact that there is an army massing on our borders and nothing will stop their insidious infiltration as soon as our backs are turned.